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Ma, Q. Multifarious Functions of Lignin in Plant Defense Responses. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 18 April 2024).
Ma Q. Multifarious Functions of Lignin in Plant Defense Responses. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed April 18, 2024.
Ma, Qing-Hu. "Multifarious Functions of Lignin in Plant Defense Responses" Encyclopedia, (accessed April 18, 2024).
Ma, Q. (2024, March 04). Multifarious Functions of Lignin in Plant Defense Responses. In Encyclopedia.
Ma, Qing-Hu. "Multifarious Functions of Lignin in Plant Defense Responses." Encyclopedia. Web. 04 March, 2024.
Multifarious Functions of Lignin in Plant Defense Responses

Lignin is complex, three-dimensional biopolymer existing in plant cell wall. Lignin biosynthesis is increasingly highlighted because it is closely related to the wide applications in agriculture and industry productions, including in pulping process, forage digestibility, bio-fuel, and carbon sequestration. The functions of lignin in planta have also attracted more attentions, particularly in plant defense response against different pathogens.

lignin defense response biosynthesis disease resistant crop molecular breeding

1. Introduction

Lignin is a main structural component of cell walls in vascular plants (pteridophytes, gymnosperms, and angiosperms) during the process of thickening the secondary wall. Lignin is principally deposited in the secondary wall of certain plant tissues, including xylem, sclerenchyma, phloem fiber, and periderm, which are involved in hydrophobic protection and the mechanical support of plant tissues. Some parenchyma cells may also have the lignin deposition in the primary wall, but the degree of lignifications is low. Lignin is linked to cellulose and hemicellulose in the cell wall to form an extracellular matrix. This structure increases the mechanical intensity and supportable ability of plant tissues. It contributes to rigidity and strength of the plant stem, which is related to the lodging-resistant and seed-coat-protecting phenotypes in crop plants [1][2][3]. Because the natural property of hydrophobicity, lignin imparts water impermeable plant cells. This function is very important, not only for xylem and phloem to transport water and mineral components, but also for the successful colonization of land by plants. In fact, the terrestrial vascular plants are proposed to evolve on the earth by the concomitant evolution of lignin biosynthesis that originated about 450 million years ago in the Silurian Period [4]. Therefore, lignin is a substance unique to vascular plants such as pteridophytes, gymnosperms, and angiosperms. The unicellular and non-vascular plants, such as algae and bryophytes, do not contain the cells filled with lignin, but they do have some lignin biosynthesis-related genes [5]. In addition, lignin accumulation in the cell wall forms a physically structural barrier to effectively protect the plant from pathogens, and the lignin synthesis is induced in response to various kinds of abiotic and biotic stresses [6][7]. The researchers will discuss this topic in later sections.
Second only to cellulose, lignin is one of the most plentiful biopolymers on earth, which accounts for about 1.4 × 1012 kg of carbon fixed into terrestrial plants annually [8]. Lignin content varies among different classes of plants. In trees, lignin content represents 27–32% of dry weight, while it accounts only 14–25% of dry weight in herbaceous plants. As a bio-undegradable biopolymer in plant, lignin is also intimately related to industry and agriculture. Lignin content and composition are limiting factors associated with both the quality of paper production and the digestibility of forage crop. In the pulping process, lignin must be removed by costly and environmentally hazardous protocols, spending large amounts of energy and chemicals which may lead to serious environmental pollution. It would be beneficial to treat plant tissues with either less lignin or lignin with an altered chemical reactivity [9]. Lignin content in forage crops is negatively corrected with forage digestibility for ruminant animals, while lignin composition also affects the forage digestibility. Increasing the digestibility of forage crop is important in husbandry [10]. Lignin is also an important determinant in bio-fuel production. The value of lignin depends on its final purpose of utilization. Due to its high heat value, lignin is desirable for conversion by gasification or pyrolysis to produce bio-oil plus useful gas such as H2 and CH4 [11]. Conversely, ethanol production with enzymatic saccharification in lignocellulose is restricted by lignin-derived compounds [12][13]. Lignin-derived monomers are valuable precursors to produce aromatic chemicals in the biorefinery [14][15]. In the terrestrial environments, lignin is a main component of organic substance that served as the important carbon sink in carbon sequestration [16].

2. Lignin as the Critical Barrier Contributing to Basic Disease Resistance

Lignin is an intricate polymer that serves the physical barrier in the defense response to pathogen infection, as lignin is un-degradable to most microorganisms [17][18]. When pathogens invade a cell, they induce lignin deposition in the cell wall which provides a physical barrier to resist pathogen infection by limiting the entry of pathogen toxins and cell wall-degrading enzymes into plants and preventing the nutrient transmission from the host to the pathogen [19][20]. It is important to know how lignin accumulation will affect disease resistance in plants. The majority of data shows that the high lignin levels will increase disease resistance, but contrary results were also reported that low lignin content in plants exhibited less disease severity [21][22][23]. As a highly labile heteropolymer, lignin composition was also proposed to affect the disease severity in plant. Here, the data showed that S, G, or H lignin might affect disease severity. More G and H units were accumulated when soft rot pathogens infected in Chinese cabbage [24]. The S unit concentration was increased in false flax (Camelina sativa) and wheat upon fungal penetration [19][25]. The contradictory results mainly derive from the different plants in study, which are complicated by the many unrestrained genetic and developmental factors possibly impacting defense responses.

3. Lignin Related Chemicals Inducing Immune Reaction

Lignin and some related compounds can play as a signal to activate plant-specific immune response. It has reported that silencing Gh4CL30 will promote caffeic acid and ferulic acid accumulation, which inhibit the growth of fungal hyphal and increase resistance to Verticillium wilt in cotton [26]. Many molecules associated with the lignin pathway can serve as phytoalexins which restrict pathogens [27]. Coumarins (including umbelliferone, esculetin, and scopoletin) are synthesized through p-coumaryl-CoA and feruloyl-CoA. They have been proposed to be regulators in plant microbiomes [28]. Stilbenes are phenolic phytoalexins. Its skeleton (stilbene skeleton) synthesis is catalyzed by stilbene synthase (STS) through the conversion of p-coumaryl-CoA. The defensive roles of stilbene against pathogens have also been documented [29]. Recently, a large-scale and in-depth investigation of the phyllosphere microbiome in rice has revealed that 4-hydroxycinnamic acid (4-HCA), a precursor compound in lignin synthesis, is the main driver for enrichment of beneficial Pseudomonas, and inhibition of harmful bacteria Xanthomonas. OsPAL02 is responsible for 4-HCA synthesis, and therefore maintains healthy phyllosphere homeostasis in rice. It is proposed that regulating microbiome-shaping genes become a new strategy as ‘M gene breeding’ in plant disease resistance breeding alone with the current strategy known as ‘R gene breeding strategy’ [30].
Lignans are phenylpropanoid dimmers synthesized via the monolignol pathway, with coniferyl alcohol as the direct precursor [31]. Dirigent proteins have been shown to act in initiating lignan synthesis [32]. Both dirigent and lignan are proposed to have vital roles in defense responses [33][34][35]. Particularly, some dirigent proteins boost disease resistance by directly promoting lignan accumulation [36].
Besides these lignin compounds’ ability to act directly on pathogens, cell wall damage will affect cell wall integrity (CWI) and then release damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) which trigger immunity reactions [37]. Lignin is proposed to play the critical part during this process [38]. The reactive oxygen species (ROS) and stress-related hormones, such as jasmonate (JA) and salicylic acid (SA), are involved in lignin’s action to disease resistance [39]. A dirigent protein DIR7 has been identified which play the important role in response to plant CWI impairment [40].

4. Lignin Related Genes Serving Target in Defense Response

In plants, resistance genes (R) play a vital part in disease resistance. Most R genes encode the NLR class of proteins [41]. Upon pathogen recognition of R genes, it triggers a defense response that includes hypersensitive response (HR). HR leads a rapid cell death in infection site. It has been reported that maize has two NLRs, Rp1-D, and Rp1-dp2. Combination of Rp1-D and Rp1-dp2 will lead to activated HR without pathogen infection. Two key enzymes in lignin biosynthesis, HCT and caffeoyl CoA O-methyltransferase (CCoAOMT), have been demonstrated to suppress this HR by interacting with the Rp1-D21 complex. The enzymatic activities of HCT and CCoAOMT are not necessary to suppress HR. It is proposed that HCT, CCoAOMT, and Rp1 proteins form a complex. Pathogen effectors may target on the lignin pathway as its importance to plant defense, in turn, NLR proteins will monitor special components during this process [42][43]. This model is reminiscent to resistosome, which has been elucidated recently [44].
Pathogenesis is also involved in lignin by targeting its synthetic enzymes. An F-box protein (ZmFBL41) has been identified that confers resistance to banded leaf and sheath blight (BLSB) in maize. ZmFBL41 interacts with cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase (CAD), the final enzyme in the monolignol pathway, leading to the ubiquitination and degradation of CAD. Two amino acid substitutions in the natural allele of resistant maize lines prevent this interaction. It is proposed that the pathogen (Rhizoctonia solani) may deliver effectors to directly or indirectly interact with ZmFBL41 or ZmFBL41-ZmSKP1-ZmCAD complex and increase susceptibility of the host [45]. The protein containing tetratrico-peptide repeats (TPRs) is the largest functional family that maintains protein organization and homeostasis through a complicated chaperone network [46]. A mutant, namely bsr-k1 (broad-spectrum resistance Kitaake-1), has been identified in rice. Bsr-k1 confers broad-spectrum resistance against the fungal pathogen (Magnaportheoryzae)and bacterial pathogen (Xanthomonasoryzae). Bsr-k1 encodes a tetratricopeptide repeats (TPRs)-containing protein, which binds to PAL mRNAs (OsPAL1-7) and promotes their turnover. Loss of Bsr-k1 function results in lignin accumulation and increases resistance to rice blast and bacterial blight [47].

5. The Regulating Network Linking Lignin with Immune Reaction

The transcriptional regulation on plant metabolism and development is important, which also participates in immune reaction through lignin metabolism. MYB proteins are one of the largest transcription factor families which play an important part in plant growth and development. Some members of MYB are master regulators in the lignin pathway, usually form MBW ternary complex that consists of MYB, basic helix-loop-helix, and WD40 [48][49]. A R2R3 MYB transcription factor, namely GhODO1, was isolated from cotton. GhODO1 interacts with the promoters of lignin genes Gh4CL1 and GhCAD3, activates their expression, and increases lignin accumulation and resistance to Verticillium wilt (Verticillium dahlia). JA-mediated defense signaling is also proposed to be involved in this process [50]. AtMYB15 has been reported to regulate defense-induced lignification and contribute to resistance to Pseudomonas syringae (Pst DC3000). Furthermore, effector-triggered immunity (ETI) responses to Pst DC3000 challenge are required for AtMYB15-mediated lignification. This suggests that MYB15 plays a central part in pathogen-induced lignification [51][52]. BnMYB43 from oilseed rape has been shown to regulate vascular lignification, plant morphology and potential yield, but negatively affect resistance to Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, therefore being a growth-defense trade-off participant [53].
Small GTP-binding proteins exist ubiquitously in eukaryotes, which regulate different cell functions such as organogenesis, polar growth, cell division, and defense response [54][55]. ROP is a subfamily of small GTP-binding proteins that exclusively occur in plants. There are 11 ROPs in Arabidopsis, 7 in rice, and 6 in wheat [56]. OsRac1, one member of ROP in rice, has been reported to affect on CCR, the first enzyme special to lignin monolignol pathway, and then increase defense responses [57].

6. The Metabolic Flux towards Lignin Affecting Defense Response

The metabolic reprogramming is a common phenomenon in regulating metabolism of plant. Its relation with plant innate immunity and lignin pathway remain largely unknown. A novel glycosyltransferase UGT73C7 was identified from Arabidopsis. It has shown that UGT73C7 could glycosylate p-coumaric acid and ferulic acid, the upstream compounds in the lignin pathway. This will up-regulate SNC1 expression, a Toll/interleukin 1 receptor-type NLR gene, and then activate immunity in the plant. UGT73C7 is an important regulator to redirect lignin metabolism upon pathogen challenge [58]. Recently, the researchers have demonstrated that wheat DFRL exerted disease resistance through shifting NADP pool and lignin synthesis [59]. Hm1 is a first-cloned R gene from maize, which encodes an enzyme that detoxifies the Helminthosporium carbonum (HC) toxin from the special pathogen Cochliobolus carbonum [60]. However, the homologous Hm genes have also been found from other monocot crops, including rice, barley, and wheat, although they are not the host of C. carbonum. Hm homologs are similar with dihydroflavonol-4-reductase (DFR) in sequence, an important rate-limiting enzyme in flavonoid pathway; therefore they are named as dihydroflavonol-4-reductase like (DFRL). The researchers' studies have shown that wheat TaDFRL has the broad substrate preference, including dihydroflavonol (such as taxifolin), flavonol, and flavones (such as quercetin and apigenin), and use both NAD and NADP as co-enzyme, which is different with DFR. Up-regulated TaDFRL alters NAD(H) and NADP(H) pools towards high NADPH levels. Subsequently, the expressions of CAD and CCR genes are increased, which required NADPH as reducing equivalent. This leads to the enhancement of lignin accumulation and resistance to broad-spectrum diseases [59]. This provides a novel mechanism about increasing host defense responses by elevating metabolic flux towards lignin biosynthesis.


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